On an unsettlingly balmy evening this past November, Autumn Kietponglert is crammed—along with tottering models in five-inch heels, their gowns and hot pants manically pinned and tucked, their hair knotted, teased, spiked—into the backstage dressing room at Center City’s G Lounge, where the RAW: Natural Born Artists 2012 Awards is hosting its Philadelphia competition. The hip underground-artist competition is held in cities around the country, culminating in a national awards ceremony in Hollywood. There, honors in eight categories are doled out, including music, art, film and fashion. Arguably, the most important of these is fashion. Which is why Kietponglert is here.
“I’ve never won any award before,” she whispers, the shaved side of her otherwise black-moppy-haired head facing my left cheek. The 30-something designer is one of the four inaugural designers-in-residence at the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy’s—a selective program that offers a short list of fledgling, ambitious local fashion designers a bona fide business and marketing curriculum. She’s also something of an It Girl right now: Everyone from Ellen Shepp, co-owner of Joan Shepp, Philly’s famously cutting-edge boutique, to the cool-hunting editors at Marie Claire is sizing her up. Little wonder. Her couture line, Autumnlin Atelier, is a brilliant mash-up of Brit couture punks like Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood and the dark, textural moods of Japanese designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Junya Watanabe.
If we’re being honest, it’s not a look you’d necessarily expect from a girl who was reared a stone’s throw away from the Ben Franklin Bridge in South Jersey, and educated in a two-room school in a strict Seventh-day Adventist community. It wasn’t until Kietponglert’s parents enrolled her at the local public high school that she sponged up the teenage punky-Gothy mise-en-scène on the spot and became a born-again fashionista. Later, while earning her master’s at Drexel’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design in 2007, the ex-Adventist created a vision for clothes interplaying the sacred and profane.
“My inspirations come to me from dreams,” says the designer, who today lives in North Philly. “The imagery I see is heavenly and apocalyptic.” Noted. Her silhouettes range from darkly angel-feathered collars to shoulder-covering armor jewelry gorgeously sculpted from metal zippers to regal, ethereal gowns that summon fairy-tale figures of angels or the White Swan. Lady Gaga would gobble up Kietponglert with a steak knife.
At G Lounge, as Autumnlin models whisk down the runway—their feather capelets spreading like Versailles fans, their artfully shredded skirts undulating with every pivot—Kietponglert gnaws at her lip. Finally the competition concludes, and the audience and judges cast their ballots. RAW’s flashy, long-winded emcee concludes his speech about how great Philly’s art scene is—“In New York or L.A., they’ll stab you in the back, but in Philly, we just stick you in the chest”—and the results are announced. Kietponglert wins, and it’s fun to watch: the Goth-y young designer literally jumping for joy.